Excerpt from 21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Harari:
The Secular Ideal
What then is the secular ideal? The most important secular commitment is to the truth, which is based on observation and evidence rather than on mere faith. Secularists strive not to confuse truth with belief. If you have a very strong belief in some story, that may tell us a lot of interesting things about your psychology, about your childhood, and about your brain structure—but it does not prove that the story is true. (Often, strong beliefs are needed precisely when the story isn’t true.) In addition, secularists do not sanctify any group, person, or book as if it and it alone has sole custody of the truth. Instead, secular people sanctify the truth wherever it may reveal itself—in ancient fossilized bones, in images of far-off galaxies, in tables of statistical data, or in the writings of various human traditions. This commitment to the truth underlies modern science, which has enabled humankind to crack the atom, decipher the genome, track the evolution of life, and understand the history of humanity itself.
The other chief commitment of secular people is to compassion. Secular ethics relies not on obeying the edicts of this or that god, but rather on a deep appreciation of suffering. For example, secular people abstain from murder not because some ancient book forbids it but because killing inflicts immense suffering on sentient beings. There is something deeply troubling and dangerous about people who avoid killing just because “God says so.” Such people are motivated by obedience rather than compassion, and what will they do if they come to believe that their god commands them to kill heretics, witches, adulterers, or foreigners?
Of course, in the absence of absolute divine commandments, secular ethics often face difficult dilemmas. What happens when the same action hurts one person but helps another? Is it ethical to levy high taxes on the rich in order to help the poor? To wage a bloody war in order to remove a brutal dictator? To allow an unlimited number of refugees into our country? When secular people encounter such dilemmas, they do not ask, “What does God command?” Rather, they carefully weigh the feelings of all concerned parties, examine a wide range of observations and possibilities, and search for a middle path that will cause as little harm as possible.
Consider, for example, attitudes toward sexuality. How do secular people decide whether to endorse or oppose rape, homosexuality, bestiality, and incest? By examining feelings. Rape is obviously unethical, not because it breaks some divine commandment but because it hurts people. In contrast, a loving relationship between two men harms no one, so there is no reason to forbid it.
What about bestiality? I have participated in numerous private and public debates about gay marriage, and all too often some wise guy asks, “If marriage between two men is okay, why not allow marriage between a man and a goat?” From a secular perspective the answer is obvious. Healthy relationships require emotional, intellectual, and even spiritual depth. A marriage lacking such depth will make you frustrated, lonely, and psychologically stunted. Whereas two men can certainly satisfy the emotional, intellectual, and spiritual needs of each other, a relationship with a goat cannot. Therefore if you see marriage as an institution aimed at promoting human well-being—as secular people do—you would not dream of even raising such a bizarre question. Only people who see marriage as some kind of miraculous ritual might do so.
So how about relations between a father and his daughter? Both are humans, so what’s wrong with that? Well, numerous psychological studies have demonstrated that such relations inflict immense and usually irreparable harm on the child. In addition, they reflect and intensify destructive tendencies in the parent. Evolution has shaped the psyche of Homo sapiens in such a way that romantic bonds just don’t mix well with parental bonds. Therefore you don’t need God or the Bible to oppose incest—you just need to read the relevant psychological studies.
This is the deep reason secular people cherish scientific truth: not in order to satisfy their curiosity, but in order to know how best to reduce the suffering in the world. Without the guidance of scientific studies, our compassion is often blind.
The twin commitments to truth and compassion result also in a commitment to equality. Though opinions differ regarding questions of economic and political equality, secular people are fundamentally suspicious of all a priori hierarchies. Suffering is suffering, no matter who experiences it, and knowledge is knowledge, no matter who discovers it. Privileging the experiences or the discoveries of a particular nation, class, or gender is likely to make us both callous and ignorant. Secular people are certainly proud of the uniqueness of their particular nation, country, and culture—but they don’t confuse uniqueness with superiority. Therefore, though they acknowledge their special duties toward their nation and their country, secular people don’t think these duties are exclusive, and they simultaneously acknowledge their duties toward humanity as a whole.
We cannot search for the truth and for the way out of suffering without the freedom to think, investigate, and experiment. For that reason secular people cherish freedom, and refrain from investing supreme authority in any text, institution, or leader as the ultimate judge of what’s true and what’s right. Humans should always retain the freedom to doubt, to check again, to hear a second opinion, to try a different path. Secular people admire Galileo Galilei, who dared to question whether the Earth really sits motionless at the center of the universe; they admire the masses of common people who stormed the Bastille in 1789 and brought down the despotic regime of Louis XVI; and they admire Rosa Parks, who had the courage to sit down on a bus seat reserved for white passengers only.
It takes a lot of courage to fight biases and oppressive regimes, but it takes even greater courage to admit ignorance and venture into the unknown. Secular education teaches us that if we don’t know something, we shouldn’t be afraid of acknowledging our ignorance and looking for new evidence. Even if we think we know something, we shouldn’t be afraid of doubting our opinions and checking ourselves again. Many people are afraid of the unknown and want clear-cut answers for every question. Fear of the unknown can paralyze us more than any tyrant. People throughout history worried that unless we put all our faith in some set of absolute answers, human society would crumble. In fact, modern history has demonstrated that a society of courageous people willing to admit ignorance and raise difficult questions is usually not just more prosperous but also more peaceful than societies in which everyone must unquestioningly accept a single answer. People afraid of losing their truth tend to be more violent than people who are used to looking at the world from several different viewpoints. Questions you cannot answer are usually far better for you than answers you cannot question.
Finally, secular people cherish responsibility. They don’t believe in any higher power that takes care of the world, punishes the wicked, rewards the just, and protects us from famine, plague, or war. Therefore we flesh-and-blood mortals must take full responsibility for whatever we do—or don’t do. If the world is full of misery, it is our duty to find solutions. Secular people take pride in the immense achievements of modern societies, such as curing epidemics, feeding the hungry, and bringing peace to large parts of the world. We need not credit any divine protector with these achievements—they resulted from humans developing their own knowledge and compassion. Yet for exactly the same reason, we need to take full responsibility for the crimes and failings of modernity, from genocides to ecological degradation. Instead of praying for miracles, we need to ask what we can do to help.
These are the chief values of the secular world. As noted earlier, none of these values is exclusively secular. Jews value the truth, Christians value compassion, Muslims value equality, Hindus value responsibility, and so forth. Secular societies and institutions are happy to acknowledge these links and to embrace religious Jews, Christians, Muslims, and Hindus, provided that when the secular code collides with religious doctrine, the latter gives way. For example, to be accepted into secular society, Orthodox Jews are expected to treat non-Jews as their equal, Christians should avoid burning heretics at the stake, Muslims must respect freedom of expression, and Hindus have to relinquish caste-based discrimination.
In contrast, there is no expectation that religious people should deny God or abandon traditional rites and rituals. The secular world judges people on the basis of their behavior rather than their favorite clothes and ceremonies. A person can follow the most bizarre sectarian dress code and practice the strangest of religious ceremonies, yet act out of a deep commitment to the core secular values. There are plenty of Jewish scientists, Christian environmentalists, Muslim feminists, and Hindu human rights activists. If they are loyal to scientific truth, to compassion, to equality, and to freedom, they are full members of the secular world, and there is absolutely no reason to demand that they take off their yarmulkes, crosses, hijabs, or tilakas.
For similar reasons, secular education does not mean a negative indoctrination that teaches kids not to believe in God and not to take part in any religious ceremonies. Rather, secular education teaches children to distinguish truth from belief, to develop compassion for all suffering beings, to appreciate the wisdom and experiences of all the earth’s denizens, to think freely without fearing the unknown, and to take responsibility for their actions and for the world as a whole.